You are sitting at a table introducing a game you love to several new players. Rules explanation complete, you move to playing the game. What’s this? An opportunity for a fantastic play that will give you a huge lead! The question is, what do you do? Crush your green opponents perhaps teaching them a hard but valuable lesson? Or give them a break hoping they will come back to the game again?
That is our question today. How do you handle situations where you could let a player win a game?
I may get a lot of flak for this—I know the guys give me a hard time about it—but I never play suboptimally. On purpose at least. Maximizing my play is how I get the most fun out of board games. I expect that my opponents are bringing their A-game when I play them. This means I don’t ever just let people win. That said, I tend to lose games when I first teach them to someone. Here’s why:
I generally provide assistance instead of holding back when I teach a new game. As long as it is well received, I’ll give it. This typically means allowing players to take back moves and suggesting better ones. Sometimes I’ll give them several options and see if they can figure out which one is optimal. Or I may remind them of a rule they overlooked. Once I know that they have a good grasp on the concepts, I provide less and less help as the game progresses. Age varies the amount of info I’m willing to give out as well.
Regardless if they win or lose I also like to show them several of the turning points in the game. What happened that allowed the other person to win? Why was that important? What small intricacies did they miss? Maybe point out a few combos and interactions. I have found that if they’re not interested enough to learn after the game is over then they probably weren’t interested enough in the game to play it again later anyway.
I do all this because I want people to a) understand the game to it’s fullest and b) learn how to win. I’m not going to hand them a win. They need to earn it. I expect people to want to give me a challenge.
This is a tricky question and it completely depends on the situation. Let me say upfront that I don’t ever “let” people win. I don’t just lay down or stop trying. Part of the fun for me in playing is the striving to win. I’m not a kingmaker. With that out of the way let’s talk about how I approach three different situations.
Situation #1: Introducing an experienced gamer to a new game
This person is already on board with board games so they don’t need coddling. However, I still want them to enjoy the new game I am teaching them. If it is one I am very familiar with there is a good chance I would stomp all over them. If they are the kind of person who is ok with this then I will play normally. If I know they don’t like to landslide-lose then I will do my best to give them the information they need to make good decisions.
Situation #2: Introducing someone to the hobby
This person is unaware of the wider world of board games but they are interested enough to try a game with me. I tread carefully here. Feeling like the win was handed to you is a bad feeling. On the flip side, being destroyed is an equal-if-different bad feeling. I want them to leave the game feeling satisfied whether they win or lose. In this situation, I will sometimes take a sub-optimal move or two. If they are open to help I will point out opportunities until I think they are seeing them more consistently. This doesn’t mean I am looking to lose – mainly I am looking for the to have fun so that they might come back for another game. And another.
Try a new strategy
Something I haven’t mentioned yet, but think is the perfect solution in almost any situation is to try a completely new or off the wall strategy. Doing this naturally breeds some accidental bad decisions on my part and opens doors for the new player.
Short answer: no. But in a teaching or hobby introduction kind of situation, the “no” isn’t so simple. Maybe because during those times I’m not really thinking of winning or losing the game.
I grew up training in martial arts. I also got to teach from time to time. The best teachers and sparring partners stayed just right above your level in order to not overwhelm you but still make you push beyond your current abilities. This lets you practice and develop your skills (rather than being smothered all the time) but still in an environment with pressure and tension.
That’s only one arena, though – the training arena. The competition arena was a different game. No one pulled punches there but engaged in a trial for everyone’s best. That’s where the “no” is an absolute no – gaming with my gaming group where the fun for all of us is in the competition.
But in our hobby, sometimes I get to wear the teacher’s hat. I let the guy hit me a couple of times to practice the mechanic and go through the motions of action/consequence. I set up a series of turns to put the risk/reward scenario on display. Especially if we’re talking about someone new to the modern mechanics of play. That may vary to a lesser degree if I’m teaching a new game to veterans that are familiar with modern gaming tropes. But the point is, while I may let (or even point out) another player(s) opportunity to get the best of me, it’s not a conscious “let the Wookie win” situation because I’m not concerned about who’s winning or losing. Rather, it’s all done in the spirit of playing our best game. And anyway, winning against someone who is at a clear disadvantage due to confusion or unfamiliarity isn’t fun for me either.
I don’t want to win a game myself, only to find out that it was not genuine because someone else gave it to me for whatever reason and I won’t do that to somebody else. It’s a little insulting, so I do not want to do that to other players. That being said, there are a couple of minor exceptions to that rule that I will follow from time to time. I still won’t throw a game, but I will alter my play a bit in these situations.
The first is when playing with my kids. No, I’m not the kind of dad that throws a game so my kids can experience victory, but I will occasionally give them an extra turn or two to see if a certain strategy works out or to give them a chance to fully experience an element of a game. For example, when playing Arcadia Quest with my middle daughter and Bryan I held off on getting the win for an extra couple of turns because she was very close to doing it herself. I wanted her to experience that excitement if at all possible. I didn’t just stop playing though, I just went after a victory that would take me a few more turns than jumping in and sniping the boss monster she was trying to take out. She ended up having some unlucky rolls, and I had the opposite so I ended up taking the win. That was one of the least satisfactory wins I can remember, I had really wanted her to take the victory. I didn’t want to rob her of the satisfaction of the win when she discovered that I had thrown the game either. In the end, she had a blast playing the game and wants to play again soon, so not winning didn’t ruin the experience for her. If she had won, it wouldn’t have been because I just stopped playing, but rather that she pursued a good strategy and played well.
The second situation in which I will alter my play of a game is when playing with new gamers or someone who is jumping up to a game much more complex than they are used to. I still won’t throw a game, but I will take it easy the first turn or two as I make sure that they have a grasp on the rules. Sometimes that’s accomplished by not making any aggressive moves early on. I’ll still play the game, but I won’t grab that territory or valuable resource you left sitting out there on round 2. If it’s still out there a couple rounds later, it’s mine and I expect you to try and take it back or capitalize on any mistakes I’ve made. The other way I will alter my play, and the one I usually employ with new gamers, is to try out a strategy that is new and may be unfamiliar to myself. I’ll still be playing to the best of my ability, but I won’t be trying out a tried and true strategy that has brought the victory to me before. This has the benefit of providing both the new player and I a challenging experience, without either of us feeling that the other is holding anything back. Trying out a new strategy for a game I like is fun anyway, and may result in me finding a new way to counter moves by my opponent or achieve an end game goal.